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Mamma, The Last To Know: On My Trans Son's Coming Out

Italian writer Lia Celi has her would-be mother's "sixth sense" put to the test.

Mamma, The Last To Know: On My Trans Son's Coming Out

During the Transgender day of remembrance in Milan

Lia Celi

-Essay-

RIMINI — Vienna, city of the Habsburgs and the waltz, Sachertorte and Secession. To me, as of 2018, Vienna also became the city of shocks. It was in the Austrian capital, at a restaurant table, that my 18-year-old son announced to me, in all seriousness: "I'm trans." First shock, followed by the second: "My siblings have known for a while now."

That's the theory of moms' sixth sense settled. Everyone in the family knew, it was just me who didn't have a clue. I'm far from a absent mom — I've always worked from home — and haven't missed a minute of raising my four children. And yet...


I don't remember exactly how I reacted to the revelation. I think I sat with my fork in midair over my Wienerschnitzel for a good 15 minutes before replying, "Are you sure?" — using the feminine adjective, sicura — the first in a series of mistakes over endings and pronouns I would stumble over for a long time. My son looked at me bewildered and disappointed, realizing he had overestimated me.

I never suspected

He expected — genuinely — that I would celebrate, that I would be happy because he had finally figured out who he was. It happened, but not right away. In that moment, I just felt that I was losing my little girl, the young woman who had just finished high school, the one who had always loathed skirts and frills and excelled at team sports — some of the very reasons why I liked her so much.

In her place was a son whose existence I had never suspected, a situation out of a novel. I couldn't conceive that his coming out was neither a moment of confusion nor a passing idea. He had been developing his awareness over a long time, through doubts and suffering that I had never realized, and that until now he had preferred to share with his sisters and younger brother.

My son's transition made me discover how far behind I was on LGBTQ issues

"But I had always felt he was a brother and not a sister," my youngest son, who is now 13, tells me. "Calling him something else was not a problem." He says it with the tone of someone who doesn't see the problem. He already has two friends from elementary school that now want to be called by their male names. The martial arts instructor of one of his classmates was a woman and a mother before becoming a man. And we don't live in Manhattan or Stockholm, but in an Italian province like many others.

You don't just have to read the right newspapers or watch the TV series Pose to really understand what being trans means

Davide Pischettola/NurPhoto/ZUMA

Understanding gender identity

That's when I started to sense that the "province" (in the sense of mental laziness and attachment to the status quo) was more inside my head than outside. My son's transition made me discover how far behind I was on LGBTQ issues, and transgender issues in particular.

You don't just have to read the right newspapers, watch the TV seriesPose, or appreciate Sicily's trans cartoonist and writer Fumettibrutti to really understand what being trans means. For example: at the beginning what worried me the most was the surgical-pharmacological procedures that would have transformed my son's body, already having gone through three operations on his knees during his adolescence. While the real transition, the most important one, does not concern the body, but the heart and the brain.

Gender identity is a complex and delicate mechanism that involves flesh and mind, intertwining biology, environment and culture — the harmony between sex and gender is neither simple nor automatic for everyone. If the genitals we have at birth were enough to define who we are, no one would be transgender.

Have we fought so that every person can be a full version of themselves, without fear of being excluded, insulted or attacked?

Have we fought enough for people's rights?

Yes, but what about discrimination and bullying, you may ask. Well, it's unlikely that Roman (his chosen name) will suffer any more now than in high school, when she was a girl whose looks didn't fit the norm. Rather, am I sure I've done enough to ensure that such things don't happen in my country anymore? The generation to which Roman's father and I belong has taken to the streets for any bit of bullshit concerning Silvio Berlusconi. But have we fought the same so that every person can be a full version of themselves, without fear of being excluded, insulted or attacked?

Of course, it was not us who elected politicians capable of applauding the rejection of a law against homotransfobia. But we certainly gave our vote to the incompetent ones who failed to prevent its rejection, or perhaps even encouraged it. Are we sure it's less serious?

"Wait until you tell Grandpa," I had recommended to Roman at our dinner in Vienna. "He's 80 years old, has heart problems. We have to prepare him." Nope. My father had already sensed it, and when his grandson "spoke to him," he hugged him and told him that all that mattered was his happiness, the rest wasn't important. "He took it better than you did," Roman said with a smirk. And you know, that's all right by me.

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